Government Can Be Efficient

June 27, 2013

Despite varying opinions about the appropriate size of government, politicians should be able to agree that the taxpayer money government spends must be spent wisely, says Stephen Goldsmith, the Daniel Paul Professor of Government at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Politicians, buffeted by the pressure of false tradeoffs of higher taxes or fewer services and the ever-increasing dependence on government programs and funding, usually avoid the heavy lifting of making government more efficient. Yet it remains proven that administrative savings of 10 percent to 25 percent can be achieved in almost every public agency. Such efficiencies necessitate changes to the traditional hierarchical and command-and-control structures.

 Problems in government:

  • Human Relations: Government hires awkwardly and suffocates the best and brightest once they enter public service.
  • Layering: We cannot afford all the layers of bureaucracy that now exist. It is not just the cost of the layers, but the very fact that more often than not they subtract rather than add to the effectiveness of the functions for which they are responsible by limiting employee discretion, skill, rewards and innovation. Management too often means directing subordinates' activities, not producing solutions.
  • Valuing the Retail: Government produces too many technical specialists -- highly trained experts that no longer interact with real people but administer a program by applying formulas.
  • Wasted Resources: Government allocates enormous resources to responding to problems in an ad hoc and non-strategic manner. Agencies work through lists of complaints or inspection orders. They act in the routine and/or in response to an issue that pops up -- a broken water main, a crime, fire, battered spouse or child, or the like. Government dilutes its resources both by responding in a roundabout way and by failing to prevent the problem in the first place.

In the developing era of "preemptive government," some cities now integrate data and analytics to discover and address situations before they ripen into serious or expensive problems.

Preemptive government is a term that is sure to make some uncomfortable. Today we have governments that wait until problems manifest themselves, or a resident calls with a complaint before dispatching resources. This is a reactive system that ignores strategic thinking and prioritizes whoever cries loudest. With good data and analytics, we can predict a whole range of coming eventualities. If Wal-Mart can predict product usage in various stores based on a range of weather and event indicators, cities can similarly predict demands on their resources.

Source: Stephen Goldsmith, "Four Tenets to Less Government Spending," Economic Policies for the 21st Century, June 17, 2013.

 

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